Sunday, September 25, 2011

making history and not making the evening news

Well, the world was not exactly watching Zambia this week (Zambia?  What’s zambia? oh -- WHERE is Zambia -- its “ZAM-bEE- AH,” is it??)  but it’s been a doozy of a week for us -- monday was a school holiday and tuesday was off for elections.  For a small african country with such a short history of independence (since 1964), it started OK. The run-up was an insane battle of personalities and exactly zero politicing.  All I really know about the  two main parties are from the three text messages that I got this week.  Policies?  Positions?  nothin.  One calling for more of the same great leadership, the other asking for change.  

PHOTOS:  PF supporters (Patriotic Front, not Peter Finch) at the swearing in.  Supporting the new President apparently requires a green foam Incredible Hulk fist. .... and a Kuamboka boat.  One of Sata's campaign 'slogans' was "Don't Kubeba" which roughly means, "Don't tell."  and the photo is of Sata 'shhhhushing.'  It basically was telling his supporters -- sure, collect all the free things that the ruling party is handing out, wear your free chitenge and your new MMD hat -- but when you come to vote, vote with your heart, vote PF. Photo credits go to Simon, who was invited to the swearing-in with his diplomatic passport ink still drying.  What a guy to remember to bring his camera. The first photo is from the podium where he was for the speeches, overlooking the crowd in front of the High Court.

There were a few problems in the lead up to the elections -- “political management” of the state owned electricity supply during a big opposition party rally in Lusak (which backfired b/c everyone was bored and came out to the rally -- including a guy who crowd-surfed HIGH above everyone's heads  in....a bathtub), scattered reports of rioting and violence, the extreme and never-explained delay of ballot-paper-printing in South Africa, a bus load of ballot papers that fell into the zambezi river on the way from the polls, relatively little.  Polls opened at 6am on tuesday in most areas -- for some it was delayed simply b/c it was difficult to get the papers to hard-to-access parts of the country. Or, opening was just delayed without explanation or apology (in these places, things got a bit hairy-scary).  People starting queue up as early as 2am.  The EU had 120 election observers, one of whom was on an hour-long call in show and actually stopped to laugh at one point to remark how he had never before heard the term “free and fair elections” spoken by so many people in such a short time. Clearly, people were aware of what they wanted.  Free and fair.  There were some 40 African (SADC) observers and all kinds of party observers and local observers.  Everyone was watching everyone else watch everyone else.  Somehow 2 million-plus voters turned out. (Zambia's 13 million population has some 5 million eligible voters, 80% were registered for this election with an almost equal male to female ratio).  
By Wednesday the Electioral Commission website had been hacked (maybe?), there were rumors of violence (never confirmed) and rumors of foul play, rumors -- but we never fully knew what was going on.  The Election Results Centre is just a few km from our house and nearby to school, so the kids’ school week was....wednesday. The work day was cut short most places as people headed home b/c of the uncertainty of what was happening -- or more importantly, what would happen.  Students at University of Zambia (UNZA) are famous for exercising their rights to free speech (here called “rioting”) and they did apparently but not with much gusto.  So, we steered clear.  A trip out for some groceries was eerily quiet.  gone were the crowds, the kids, the traffic, the vendors, etc.  There were no hints of what was to come. 
Trading was closed -- except the little grocery store “Melissa” which is run by a bunch of crazy Lebonese guy who were likely making money hand over fist. (good for them!) The police presence was visible -- paramilitary out ( but they are usually out, strolling around the shopping mall in their uniforms and carrying ancient automatic weapons), new police horses roaming from the elections results center to the polo ground stables. newly enlisted officers -- walking around uncomfortably in newly purchased bullet proof vests (even tho the police are pretty much the only ones with guns). The power (and now I mean electricity) came and went, the internet was working and not working, the higher court had injunctions against the three private media house and were banned from  publishing any results or early returns. All we had were text messages.  But as my friend pointed out, the “Arab Spring” and the politial revolution of north Africa had better internet.  
It really was a close race between the political party that has been in power for the last 20 years.  Zambia has only had 4 presidents:  Kenneth Kaunda (still alive, in his 80’s who was president from 1964 to 1991), Frederick Chiluba (who died just a few months ago), Patrick Levy Mwanawasa (who died in office in 2009), and the latest to take the office, Rupiah Banda.  There were a dozen presidential hopefuls but three main parties and two ‘real’ contenders -- the sitting president and Michael Chilufya Sata (whose nickname, by the way, is “King Cobra”) who has by now run for the office 4 times.  
It’s unclear exactly what people expected but events unfolded predictably at first.  As the initial results from urban areas came in the opposition party was in the lead.  Folks expected that over the next 48 hours, however, that the rural vote would come in for the ruling party, and with these votes would come the allegations (true or not) of rigging and corruption.  But the rural votes came in and the opposition lead remained.  80 constituancies, 100, 120.... (there are 150 voting districts).  The state owned media was running boring movies and bad music videos while they waited for the calm voice of the electoral commision head.  They promised and update at 6pm, at 8pm. at 10 pm.  at midnight.  FINALLY at 1230, an update but with the caveat that there were 7 constituencies remaining and the race was so close.  finally at 145 in the morning, they felt comfortable announcing...the opposition party won -- the new president would be inaugurated that day...pick up your invitations at the Parliament Hotel.  
Almost miraculously, the sitting president ceded, an act for which he will have earned his place in history.  All have said, an african president has every reason to fight, every resource to resist a change of power, every expection to NOT give up the post.  
At 1:46AM the city erupted -- people hopped out of their beds and hit the streets -- in their PJs in their...underdrawers? however they were -- they left their homes and headed to Plot 1 (state house, zambia’s 1600 Penny Ave/10 Downing Street), hooting and hollering and dancing.  shooting fireworks, beating drums, blowing horns, going absolutely mad.  I think Zambias are themselves surprised. They know the historical significance of a democratically held (and upheld) election.  They know that by NOT making the international news, they made history.
Yeah for Zambia!

 The news from Zambia:
(and the bathtub crowd surfing yoot photo)

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